D. Collet: Die Welt in der Stube

Die Welt in der Stube. Begegnungen mit Außereuropa in Kunstkammern der Frühen Neuzeit

Collet, Dominik
Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte 232
Göttingen 2007: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
403 S.
€ 68,90
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Holger Berg, Reventlow Museum, Pederstrup, Denmark

Collet’s study centres on three cabinets of curiosities and presents readers with their seventeenth-century inhabitants, both dead and living. The collectors and their agents and visitors are given as much attention as the overseas objects themselves. The revised Ph.D.-thesis has the strengths of a meticulous German dissertation, without the common corollaries, namely hefty footnotes and a lack of argumentative economy. This well-written study was one of the last in the series published by the prolific Max-Planck-Institute for History (1956-2007). Collet in some ways helps to give dignified closure to this chapter of Göttingen’s long history as a centre of historical scholarship. One does discern a Hanoverian connectivity in the choice of two London-based collections along with one founded in the Central German Duchy of Saxe-Gotha. These three cabinets form the points of departure for a survey spanning the European expansion, from the Atlantic coast of Brazil to Ethiopia and onwards to Java, China, and Japan. Despite excursions to Montpellier, Florence, and Rome, the study remains within a Protestant horizon.

A concise, revisionist argument enlivens the analysis and the choice of cases. The collectors and the users of all three cabinets were most interested in socialising and in confirming their own world-views. An empirical revision of established truths, in the spirit of a New Science, was largely absent. Collet here sows doubt about the recent outlines that compare the cabinets to laboratories and thereby grant them a crucial role in the so-called Scientific Revolution.

The cases enable a comparison of the three main constellations: the cabinets of curiosities found at courts, those established by bourgeois connoisseurs, and the cabinets maintained in learned societies. Compared to the cabinets of William Courten, Esquire (1642-1702) and Ernst I. in Gotha, the Royal Society harboured the highest intellectual ambitions and, at the same time, produced the least inspiring outcomes. Collet sees the root of the Society’s ironic failure in the acquisition policy and the lack of a professional curator. The case-study in Makassar-poison humorously demonstrates to how great an extent the fellows failed to live up to their own principle of examining “Nature rather than Books” (pp. 302-305). Collet here combines earlier research and new evidence in a convincing synthesis.

The study is the first to analyse cabinets in a comparative comprehensive manner extending beyond the inventories and theoretical treatises. Hence, it is also of interest to the current research on collecting, gift-giving, and other social uses of objects. The criticism of earlier theses is fortunately coupled with an alternative outline. Collet employs the concept of “projective ethnography” to explain the contemporary craving for non-European objects. His engaged analysis leads our attention from the affluent collectors to their subalterns, who used curiosities to “carve out a career” for themselves (“soziale Aufsteiger, die mit den Kuriositäten Karriere machten”, p. 206).

Most of the examined travelling agents dealt with the court in Gotha. The Saxon cabinet provides the lengthiest case. The one-hundred seventy pages (35-205) are, in part, justified by the character of the collection. Curiously enough, the scanty studied, land-locked cabinet seems to have witnessed the most intense exchanges with persons from the exhibited countries. Collet adds new dimensions to the well-known ducal attempts to gain an Ethiopian ally against the Turks. One learns much about the exiled Ethiopian Abba Gregorius and about Johann Wansleben, the ill-fated envoy sent by the “Sultan of Saxony”. The renowned scholar Hiob Ludolf the Younger appears in a new and much less flattering light.

For all his emphasis on continuity, Collet does register some intellectual change towards the end of the century. After extended and public controversy about the fossils found at Tonna (1695-1696), a cabinet curator from nearby Gotha was able to refute the reigning view of these fossils. Many at the time saw them as unicorn-like objects with medical potency. Wilhelm Ernst Tentzel instead identified their ties to an extinct subgenus of elephant (pp. 166-205). Tentzel used the methods celebrated in modern research on the cabinets: he together with foreign colleagues compared the local findings with specimens from cabinets across Europe. As the debate unfolded, palaeozoology mingled with the historiographical and pharmaceutical interests of the day; the history of seventeenth-century science is still a study in polyhistory. The contextualisation also shows that this scientific advance was contingent upon local politics. Tentzel gained support at court because the duke had recently been accepted into the Elephant Order.

The Elephant Order (p. 193, notes 586 and 589) brings us to one of the book’s rare inaccuracies. Collet takes the reader through many lands, but he does occasionally err on minor details. The prestigious, but dormant Elephant Order was renewed by Danish kings after their absolutist coup d’état in 1660. The new statutes from 1693 claimed that it had been established by their predecessors, who fought pagans in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was actually founded about 1457, as a fraternity devoted to the Holy Trinity, the Passion of Christ, and last but not least, his mother Mary. The inspiration came from the better-researched orders of, say, the Golden Fleece (Burgundy, 1430) and the Swan (Brandenburg, 1444). Whereas the Order of the Porcupine (Orleans, 1394) was likened to the thorns in Christ’s crown, the Elephant was tied the Virgin Mary. She was removed from the badge after the Reformation and subsequent historiographers predated the foundation to fully remove the Marian taint.[1]

Princes in Gotha may be excused for accepting a tradition that matched their own calls for a crusade. Collet should have scrutinised the origin, for he elsewhere deflates Protestant myths and corrects museum catalogues. His spelling of Nordic names is likewise inconsequent: Nicolas Steno is granted his Danish name (Niels Stensen) but his contemporary appears in Latin as Thomas Bartholinus (misspelled Bartholinius on page 183). Such flaws could have been eliminated by a more thorough proofreading. The reading experience is enhanced by the attractive trappings. The exquisite, well-explained reproductions justify the price. They will make the volume a valuable acquisition for well-stocked libraries.

The intellectual merit of this study is in the force of argumentation and the accessibility for neighbouring disciplines. Museums with an interest in the early history of their overseas collections will have to choose between Collet’s arguments and those advanced by established figures such as Paula Findlen and Horst Bredekamp. Some staffs may be disappointed that their own collections are now robbed of their alleged role in early scientific progress. Collet instead draws apt, critic conclusions: present ethnographical exhibitions should part with the many questionable objects collected in cabinets (pp. 330-331). The concept of “projective ethnography” has an obvious relevance for literary studies and art historians. Collet could have strengthened this by discussing earlier studies that draw contrasting conclusion about changes in contemporaneous projections.[2] The presence of such unused potential is ultimately also tribute to a concise, well-focused study. It reminds us not to underestimate the enduring ethnocentric convictions concerning exotic objects and their inferior essence.

[1] The siege at Nicaea (1097) and the battle at Lyndanisse (1219) became popular points of reference. See Mogens Bencard / Tage Kaarsted (eds.), Fra Korsridder til Ridderkors. Elefantordenens og Dannebrogordenens historie, Odense 1993, here pp. 10-40, 69-70, 76-78. German readers still have to consult Paul Cassel, Der Elephantenorden und seine Symbolik, Berlin 1888, offprint from Sunem; Berliner Wochenblatt für christliches Leben und Wissen 38 (1888); through philology, Cassel attempted to substantiate the Order’s thirteenth-century roots.
[2] Michael Harbsmeier, Wilde Völkerkunde. Andere Welten in deutschen Reiseberichten der frühen Neuzeit, Frankfurt am Main 1994, chapters four (Gegenwelten) and five (Aussenwelten), especially pp. 175-176.

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